This is a chapter from Rock and Hard Places: Travels to Backstages, Frontlines and Assorted Sideshows, a collection of travel writing, rock journalism and foreign correspondence, published in Australia in October.
There is no aspect of the rock‘n’roll life more mythologised than touring, and I should know. Having given rock‘n’roll the proverbial best years of my life, writing about music for UK music newspaper Melody Maker, then assorted others, I did my bit towards furthering the idea of touring as a splendid and enviable mobile Saturnalia. Which is to say that I lied. Not lied as in related palpable untruths, but lied in failing to pass onto readers the whole truth, which is this: touring is only fun when it’s someone else’s tour, in which case they’re about the most fun you can have. When it’s your own tour – as most people who undertake such things will confide, after a few drinks – it’s an excruciating, dignity-destroying process which will steadily cause you to loathe, in this order, your most recent work, your audience, yourself, everyone, everything.
I once interviewed Harry Shearer, now best known as the voice of much of The Simpsons, but a genuine rock‘n’roll immortal due to his portrayal of bass player Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap, the purest essence of the touring experience ever distilled. While wrangling my tape recorder, I remarked that I’d first seen the film as a teenager, and thought it amusing satire.
‘Well, thanks,’ said Shearer.
And then, I continued, I became a rock journalist.
‘And now,’ grinned Shearer, ‘you know better, right?’
I embarked on my own tour, therefore, with some trepidation. In order to interest the British reading public in the UK edition of my book, I Wouldn’t Start From Here – an account of one peripatetic hack’s bewildered stumbling around the political, philosophical and actual frontlines of the twenty-first century – my British publisher, Portobello, arranged for me a series of manifestations in bookshops and associated establishments. Naturally, I became gripped with visions of Artie Fufkin, the hapless press officer from Polymer records, penitently inviting Spinal Tap to ‘kick this ass for a man’ after organising an instore appearance at which even the two men and a dog of fable have failed to show.
Nevertheless, I agreed, largely out of curiosity – always the best and the worst reason to agree to anything.
In fairness to all concerned, it starts well. At London’s Frontline club – a haven for foreign correspondents, and similar – I do an onstage interview with my good friend James Brabazon, a reading and a Q&A session. A decent crowd show up, some of whom I don’t know. James is a kind and thoughtful interrogator, despite the patent truth that he’s survived any number of adventures much more interesting and alarming than anything I’d attempt.
During the readings, one about Gaza and one about Albania, people laugh when I hope they will, the questions from the floor are smart and pointed, and we sell all the books we brought along, and there’s no point in even trying to be smart or glib or self-deprecating about the feeling of people asking you to sign a book you wrote: it’s just brilliant. The following night, I appear at the Corner Club in Oxford, and contrary to all expectation – this is, after all, a university town in August – a reasonable gathering awaits, which is to say less than twenty, but more than a dozen, which is enough that reading aloud and fielding questions doesn’t just seem weird for everybody.
Nevertheless, I reflect, on the way back to London, the economics of it are insane. If I sold half a dozen books tonight – the most optimistic of estimates – that’s a gross return of about fifty quid, of which about a fiver goes towards defraying my advance (although the Corner Club did throw in dinner, which was very good). The outlay to accomplish same was nineteen pounds in rail fares, and about that again on magazines and newspapers to read on the train, and coffee. I understand that it’s about generating word-of-mouth, building an audience, and all that, and I don’t mind doing it – again, it’s fantastic that people turn up, and listen, and ask questions, and stick around for a drink afterwards. But a jolt of perspective is provided within forty-eight hours, with the broadcast of the episode of BBC Radio 4’s Excess Baggage in which I’m interviewed about the book (again, vexingly, by someone who’d regard the hair-raisingest moments in it as a rest cure – in this case, the explorer Benedict Allen): within minutes of the programme airing, I Wouldn’t Start From Here is 10th on amazon.co.uk’s travel chart.
It doesn’t last. By day’s end, not that I’m checking every hour or anything, I Wouldn’t Start From Here is clinging grimly to Amazon’s Top 100 travel books, digging in its nails while Charley Boorman’s Race To Dakar stamps on its fingers, and so the road beckons. After we’d recorded Excess Baggage, Allen remarked that he’d just done a reading in Bristol, in the same shop I’m due at. I asked what sort of crowed he’d pulled. ‘Eight,’ he’d beamed. I can’t wait.
Since I Wouldn’t Start From Here was first published, in Australia in 2007, I’ve received a flattering, if bemusing, number of emails from folk younger than myself, soliciting advice. I have been unsure what to offer by way of reply, as the only utterly infallible contribution I’ve ever felt I can confidently make to the sum of human wisdom is this: if you go home with a woman for the first time, and discover, in your exploratory survey of her CD shelves, that she possesses more than one album by Joni Mitchell, climb out of a bathroom window at the earliest opportunity, and run like the fucking wind.
To that pearl, I can now add this: don’t invite your friends to your book signings. Because when you do invite your friends to your book signing, and no other bugger shows up, you forfeit the consolation of subsequently lying to said friends that the event was a riotous outpouring of adulation next to which Barack Obama’s Berlin speech looked like Gary Glitter’s homecoming parade.
Which is to say that the spectre of Artie Fufkin looms forbiddingly at Borders on London’s Charing Cross Road, and he’s about the only one who does. I’m parked by the till, next to a cardboard marquee bearing my name and the book’s cover, and a stack of volumes awaiting purchase and signature. It’s a set-up that might work were I a muchgarlanded literary titan, or a gormless, ghost-written halfwit who plays football, or is otherwise on television occasionally.
But I am none of these things. I am a semi-retired rock journalist who has written a strange book about screwed-up places, and I have neither admirers nor fans, just an agent and a bunch of mates making helpful morale-boosting comments like, for example, ‘Do you want a hand brushing off the cobwebs?’ and ‘How much longer before you pack it in, Mueller? We’re getting thirsty.’ Eventually, though, three honest-to-goodness members of the book-buying public appear. In the circumstances, attempting any sort of reading would just seem odd, so we have a chat, instead. They seem nice, and afterwards I stomp into Soho with my friends, attempting to make my improvised soliloquy about the advantages of quality over quantity audible over their sniggering.
The Brighton leg of the tour was supposed to be the basis for a proper old-school, wacky ‘Summer Holiday’-variety travelogue. My publicist at Portobello, Hannah Marshall, owns a bright orange Zastava 750 – a more or less automotive relic of Yugoslav communism. We had intended to drive to Brighton and back in it. However, it is raining on the day we are due to head to the seaside, and because the car is – as I understand it – constructed largely from papier-mâché, straw and turnip peel, she doesn’t fancy our chances. We take the train. I spend the trip half-heartedly inventing prima donna rider demands – bowls of blue M&Ms backstage, a polar bear cub to stroke during the reading, and so forth. Hannah spends the trip ignoring me.
After the Charing Cross experience, I pitch up at Brighton’s Borders store willing to regard anything north of total humiliation as a result. A pleasant surprise awaits. The manager, Neil, a grinning, shaggy-haired sort in a Nirvana T-shirt, gives every impression of being someone motivated to work in bookselling by a fizzing zest for books, and he’s made an effort. There are signs, posters and displays touting my tome and my appearance, and though the dozen or so people who fill the seats seem a meagre return for Neil’s heroic labours, it’s a dozen or so more than I was expecting. I give a short talk explaining myself and the book, and read from the chapters about Albania and Gaza. The latter – in which I do, I fear, imply that the state of Israel is in some respects imperfect and fallible – provokes a brief eruption of controversy. ‘Nazi!’ snorts one punter – the one who seems to be storing a considerable percentage of his worldly chattels in the plastic carrier bags he is clutching to his chest – and shambles off; another satisfied customer.
But there are good questions from the floor afterwards, and some books are sold, and I head for Bristol two nights later suffused with an optimism which, it proves, is as hilariously misplaced as an air horn at a chess tournament. Despite the lengthy interview I’d done with the local BBC radio station, my audience at the Borders branch on Bristol’s handsome Clifton Promenade consists, in its entirety, of the parents of an ex-girlfriend. I add the entire populations of Somerset and Gloucestershire to the burgeoning list of people who’ll be sorry when I’m famous, sign all the copies of the book the store has in stock so they can’t send them back, and at least get taken out to dinner, and to meet my ex’s parents’ new dog, so it’s not a complete write-off.
The following week, I head north, in neither hope nor expectation. Any Australian who seeks triumph in Leeds labours in a dauntingly long shadow. In July 1930, on his first tour of England, a twenty-one-year-old Donald Bradman, piled up 334 runs at Headingley. ‘As to its extraordinary merit,’ declared the venerable cricket annual Wisden of this titanic innings, ‘there could be no two opinions.’
It is humbling indeed, then, to arrive for my reading at the Borders outlet on the shopping street of Briggate and discover that I have, in a very real sense, equalled Bradman’s accomplishment, at least if one values each attendee at a book reading as worth 55.66 runs, and doesn’t make any deductions for the fact that one is a member of staff, and another is a palpably insane transient seeking shelter from the astonishing rain, and who spends most of the time muttering into a mobile phone – a call which, I cannot help but suspect, has been going on for some while, possibly some years, and does not involve anyone else.
Nevertheless, that leaves four honest-to-goodness members of the reading public whose presence has not been compelled by professional obligation or voices in their head, and I am genuinely pleased to see them (I am, following last week’s debacle in Bristol, genuinely pleased to see anybody). I give my explanation of myself, and my book. I Wouldn’t Start From Here is, I tell them, the first history of the twenty-first century: a publishing landmark. Given the tumultuous rain, the meagre attendance, and the ever-present, over-arching knowledge that I’m never going to sell a thousandth as much as Bill fucking Bryson, this feels pleasingly preposterous. I do a couple of brief readings: one I haven’t done before, about traipsing around some of the less glamorous reaches of Kosovo with soldiers serving with KFOR, then the reliable crowd-pleaser recalling my first meeting with Edi Rama, the extraordinary mayor of Tirana, Albania. Afterwards, a pleasant young chap called Sean wants to argue about politics. As I have nothing better to do but ink my signature into the forlorn pile of books stacked on the table, in the hope that an ‘autographed copy’ sticker will persuade someone to part with £8.99, I’m happy to argue back. Sean takes his leave, and my scrawling is interrupted by a tall, twitching, bearded apparition in a mouldy greatcoat and deerstalker hat.
‘Have I missed something?’ he asks. Not really, I tell him.
‘Did you write this?’ he continues, lifting one of the volumes. I did, I confirm.
He – I swear I’m not making this up – whips a magnifying glass from a pocket, and regards the cover intently.
‘I’ve never heard of you,’ he concludes.
Him and everybody else in explored space, I reflect, as I plod out into the rain, back down a near ankle-deep Briggate, to tonight’s lodgings at the Malmaison hotel. I order room service, and watch a DVD of a recent AFL fixture that my folks have sent me. The forces of all that is good and righteous (Geelong) vanquish the evil empire (Hawthorn). I reassure myself that this is all going to be worth it eventually.
‘Eventually’, happily, turns out to mean ‘almost exactly twenty-four hours’. York is brilliant. Not just the event, but York itself. Beautiful, walkable, riddled with fantastic antique bookstores. I find a 1923 edition of Hilaire Belloc’s history of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. I decide that the £30 asking price is worth it, on the grounds that it serves as both a heartening totem (it is, after all, a book about conflict by someone who liked to think himself funny) and a useful dose of perspective (in that it reminds that some journeys are a rather greater struggle than the one I am presently undertaking).
When I report to York’s Borders store, things look unpromising, which is to say about how I expected them to look. Just two of the seats arranged in front of the table heaped with books are occupied. The staff tell me not to worry – they’ve been giving this plenty, printing their own posters, building displays, mentioning it to customers, and they’re quietly confident. They’re also absolutely right. By 6.30pm, all twenty-odd chairs are filled. I read the section about meeting Tirana’s mayor again, and a bit about talking to American soldiers in Baghdad just after they’d taken the city.
When I solicit questions, there’s an intriguing contribution from an officer’s mess-sounding sort who explains that his interest was piqued because he’d also worked in the Middle East. I ask in what capacity. ‘I’d rather not say,’ he beams (later, after everyone else leaves, he explains himself further, leaving me in no doubt that he’s genuine – however, were I to pass on what he relates, I’d be in the invidious and inconvenient position of having to kill all of you). Others want to know how I’d characterise my politics (‘Increasingly bewildered,’ I answer), and there’s a good discussion about the intersection of tragedy and comedy. Best of all, at least from the perspective of the author whose ego has, of late, endured a bit of a kicking, there’s an actual queue for signed copies.
Nevertheless, as I contemplate the looming conquest of Scotland, I feel like I’d rather be me than Napoleon. Which is unusual.
By the time my train from York pulls into Edinburgh’s Waverley station, I am ensconced in a not unpleasant fug of cheerful resignation. I’m already prepared for Scotland to go badly. A scheduled appearance at a Borders store in Glasgow has been cancelled. According to the email from the store’s management, this was for reasons beyond anyone’s control, but I was pretty sure I’d detected, between the lines, sentiments to the effect of ‘Who the fuck is he? He couldn’t pull a crowd if he was paying people fifty quid a time to take his book away. Why do you keep sending us these losers? Can’t you get us Paul Theroux, or Charley Boorman, or at least somebody we’ve heard of?’ As for Edinburgh, I know I haven’t a hope. I’ve arrived in the middle of the city’s annual festival, without any official attachment to the literary component of the event – and even for big names with bottomless resources, attracting attention in Edinburgh during the festival is difficult, for the fairly fundamental reason that in Edinburgh during the festival it often feels like there are more performers than there are punters. For the duration of the festival, the normally famously staid city goes, in the most genial and least pejorative sense of the word, crazy. By which I mean that if, after the previous Edinburgh Festival I’d attended, I’d entered some hypothetical contest to find the most bizarre one-line reminiscence of the event, my submission – ‘I hosted a three-night stand at the Underbelly by England’s greatest living songwriter, shook hands with Sean Connery, accidentally kidnapped a waitress and compared favourite Onion stories with a former Vice-President of the United States’ – though no word of a lie, would have struggled to crack the top ten thousand.
What minimal delusions of grandeur I may still be harbouring are vanquished by the experience of apprising myself of my accommodations – my hotel is very much the sort of place one ends up in when one is an extremely late addition to some or other riotously over-subscribed jamboree. The only parts of the bedsheets through which it would be difficult to read a newspaper are the stains which are holding them together, the ventilator shaft outside the only window offers an intriguing suggestion of what life might be like inside a 747 engine, and the plumbing is obsolete and diabolical even by British standards. However, the festival is on, which means that they are charging my publisher for the night what they would probably, at any other time of year, be grateful to get away with charging for the freehold of the entire hotel, and its indolent, surly staff.
Still, I reflect, I shouldn’t complain. I should, at moments such as these, spare a thought for the millions for whom a published book, and a subsequent publicity tour, however ill-attended, are wildest dreams plus tax. I tell myself that, in some sense, I’m doing this not for myself, but for all those thwarted authors with yellowing manuscripts in the bottoms of their wardrobes, sheaves of rejection slips in a desk drawer – and probably, I reflect further, as I grimly roll up a newspaper in preparation for single combat with the moose-sized cockroach who presides over the bathroom, some semblance of a settled, functional, adult life.
My only engagement in Edinburgh is at Word Power, an independent bookshop on West Nicolson Street. It is hopelessly clichéd to become sentimental about independent bookshops, menaced as they are by the internet and by the chain stores I’ve spent the last couple of weeks being ignored in. It is also absolutely right and proper to become sentimental about independent bookshops, especially ones like Word Power, which compensate for their relative lack of shelf space by their surfeit of enthusiasm and knowledge. The rampant nature of their optimism is attested by the twenty-odd seats they’ve arranged in front of the lectern.
Failing to pull double figures in Edinburgh at the height of the festival on a sunny Friday afternoon prompts, I’m pleased to discover, significantly less in the way of existential despair than tanking just as badly in Leeds on a rainy Tuesday night. After all, I can reassure myself, it’s Edinburgh during festival. If I didn’t have to be here, I wouldn’t be here, either.